Is it time to break down the iron gates of this prison, the nation state?

sedition law

The region of South Asia is witnessing an extraordinary rebirth of nationalism. Today, the nation is no longer defined by the people. It is represented by majoritarian groups and state “institutions” controlled by the majoritarian groups. Unquestioning loyalty to the ruling elite’s concept of nation is being demanded. The dissenters are decaled as anti-nationals and are the primary targets of sedition laws. They are the “enemy within.” It is the irony of history that in our so-called post-colonial states “The People” who were the “sovereigns” have become mere law and order problems.

The idea of nationalism had grown during the anti-colonial struggles to wrest control from the mighty British Empire which ruled over the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka and Burma. Historically, there was no “nation” in the modern sense in this region. There were people and communities. It was the amalgamation of various communities and territories by the colonial rulers, under one administrative system built on European structure of “state” that implanted the idea of “nation” in this region. The European model of “nation” was later adopted by the elite class of the native people who took over the leadership of various anticolonial movements.

Rabindranath Tagore had cautioned against uncritical acceptance of “nation” and “nationalism”. On the last day of 1899 he wrote:

“Sunset of the Century”

“The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance.

The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its own shameless feeding.

For it has made the world its food, 

And licking it, crunching it, and swallowing it in big morsels,

It swells and swells

Till in the midst of its unholy feast, descends the sudden heaven piercing its heart of grossness.”


“Sunset of the Century” was Tagore’s response to the growing fascination with the idea of the modern nation-state among Indian nationalists who argued that the absence of a politically unifying nation-state was responsible for India’s plight under colonial rule. Tagore warned of the ‘self-love’ of the nation-state that would engender its cannibalisation; a political existence that would destroy its soul.

Though Gandhi was a nationalist. His nationalism was different from the European concept which was based on exclusion. Hi nationalism was inclusive. He did not place the nation above the people, an entity for which the people only made sacrifices. Gandhi had said “the nation has the right, if it so wills, to vindicate her freedom even by actual violence. Only, then India ceases to be the land of my love, even though the land of my birth.” Gandhi was always apprehensive about the nation-state’s monopoly on violence. (Gandhi, “On Trial”- 382).

Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmad Faiz both protested against British colonialism and parochial forms of nationalism. Iqbal hoped Islam might offer a way to move beyond nationalism.   Iqbal wrote;

Aqwam-e-Jahan Mein Hai Raqabat To Issi Se
Taskheer Hai Maqsood-e-Tajarat To Issi Se

Khali Hai Sadaqat Se Siasat To Issi Se
Kamzor Ka Ghar Hota Hai Gharat To Issi Se

Aqwam Mein Makhlooq-e-Khuda Batti Hai Iss Se
Qoumiat-e-Islam Ki Jar Katti Hai Iss Se

(It (nation state) alone is responsible for: the antagonism along world’s nations, subjugation being made as the goal of commerce, politics bereft of sincerity, destruction of the home of the weak, unjust division of God’s creation into nations, and uprooting of the Islamic concept of nationality.)

Faiz preferred the internationalist and egalitarian outlook of communism. Faiz’s famous poem on Partition ended by admonishing, “Chale chalo ki woh manzil abhi nahin aayi.” In India, Ali Sardar Jafri said, “Ab bhi zindan-e-ghulami se nikal sakte hain, Apni taqdir ko hum aap badal sakte hain.” 

The opening and concluding verses of Faiz’s “Dawn of Freedom” says it poignantly,

This blemished light—this dawn devoured by night—
Surely this wasn’t what we we’ve all been aching for.

The heavy darkness of night hasn’t yet lessened.
The moment of salvation hasn’t yet come for our hearts or eyes.
So let’s keep going—for that destination [manzil] has yet to come.

The tension between the ideas of democracy and draconian state authoritarianism stems from the twin inheritance of anti-colonialism and the counter-revolutionary state. The values of human rights and democracy that inspired the common people and motivated them to join the anticolonial movements was undermined by postcolonial ruling elite. They retained the colonial structures of state machinery and colonial laws that were designed to frustrate any attempt at establishing popular sovereignty.

Speak—your lips are free.
Speak—your tongue and your upright body
Are still yours.
Speak—your life is still yours. 

Look—in the blacksmith’s shop,
The flames soar and the iron is red-hot.
Look—the mouths of the locks are beginning to open,
The links of the chains are coming undone.

Speak—the little time before your body and tongue give out
Is enough.
Speak—truth is still alive.
Speak—say whatever you wish you’d said.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 1941

The future is calling us today. Can we throw down these shackles of false identity, the Nation, which has kept us fragmented and trapped inside the narrow confines of national boundary? Let us transform into action our yearning for freedom, truth, justice and peace. Let us together recite Tagore;

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

   Where knowledge is free;

   Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

   Where words come out from the depth of truth;

   Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

   Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

   Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action

   Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.




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